TV review: Churches: How to Read Them

The Church was the heart of medieval life, says Gary Day, full of symbolism, beauty and grotesqueries

December 8, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

"Bells," said Richard Taylor (Churches: How to Read Them. Medieval Life, BBC Four, Wednesday 30 November, 7.30pm). People of the high to late Middle Ages heard them wherever they went, ringing in their ears like a benign form of tinnitus. Caught between the enthusiasm of a schoolboy and the adult fear of appearing too eager, Richard blushingly initiates the viewer into the world of the medieval church.

The buildings themselves were first used to house the altar, where the Eucharist was administered, but later became objects of beauty in their own right, with their richly decorated interiors and sky-soaring spires. Most of us are probably in the position of the speaker in Philip Larkin's poem, Church Going (1954), stopping but "wondering what to look for". Richard shows us. Driving round the English countryside in high, leafy summer, he arrives at Holy Trinity, Blythburgh.

The click of a lifted latch is the only sound in the afternoon sunshine. Once inside, Richard gazes up at the vaulting. Between each beam an angel, frozen in flight. Their faces have faded, their robes have lost their glory. With their thin bodies and lace wings, they look like mayflies, evoking more the wonders of the natural than the supernatural world. In the age of belief they were called upon to battle with devils who, one contemporary wrote, were "as numerous as motes of dust in sunlight", implying to our modern minds that evil can only be rearranged, never eliminated.

Back in the car. Richard drove to St Michael and All Angels in Castle Frome, Herefordshire to see a font. Mounted on three beasts, it symbolised how baptism, a little water, clears us of Adam's deed. "Golly, I've seen pictures of you," said Richard, squatting down to examine the only one of the creatures still with a face, a human one at that. The remark was met with what can only be called a stony glare.

Richard examined the carving round the font and giggled at Christ's bandy legs. The holy water kept in the font was protected by a lid with a lock. Otherwise it would be spirited away to be used in charms or sprinkled on crops. And you can imagine the doubts if it didn't have the desired effect. Richard stretched out on the floor. "The fact that you can drive through Herefordshire and find something like this is just amazing," he sighed. A pause. The rustle of June beyond the open door. He left without shutting it.

Next stop was St Helen in Ranworth, Norfolk. A moment of panic. The church was closed. A common experience for the casual visitor. But a camera crew works miracles. And Richard soon found himself next to Carole Rawcliffe, who was waiting for him by the altar. Her black gloves gave her an air of mystique. She explained the ceremony of churching, the blessing given to women after childbirth.

Richard was transfixed by the pale frescoes of mother and child. "It's incredibly moving, standing here," said Richard, "thinking of people's hopes and expectations." Carole nodded. The air was full of liturgical echoes, of vows made countless times down the centuries, of prayers still waiting for an answer.

What was it Larkin said? "A serious house, on serious earth it is,/In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,/Are recognised and robed as destinies." He is characteristically ambivalent about religion. It's "complete balls", he says somewhere, but it gives due weight to the depth and complexity of human experience. What else can do that?

Back at Holy Trinity, Richard was on the roof exchanging grimaces with the gargoyles. These grotesque beings originally had a practical function. The spouts projecting from their mouths were designed to throw rainwater clear of the walls. They also symbolised the chaos of the world against the peace that can be found in God.

Above all, gargoyles stood for an irrepressible vitality that was reflected in the energetic carvings of the misericords, or "compassionate seats", so called because they enabled the clergy to rest their behinds during long services without actually sitting down. Richard demonstrated what would happen if they dozed off by crashing to the flagstones. The fall of man. It's quite comic. The art of medieval churches brimmed with life, enticing people into being good and terrifying them now and then about the torments to come.

First shown last year, Churches: How to Read Them is well worth a second view. Even if it's just to see Richard's excitement at visiting a room that was once an ecclesiastical court. It was reached by a winding staircase. "That was a tight squeeze," Richard puffed. Well, "narrow is the way that leadeth unto life", especially if you are a lawyer. It's Richard's other job, but I wouldn't mind him as my advocate on Judgement Day.

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